Can You ‘Catch’ Cancer or Obesity from Other People?

Noncommunicable diseases cannot pass between people or can they?

Our ancestors of yore were suffering from recurrent bouts of malaria, deadly tuberculosis infections, constant syphilis outbreaks and bacteria-laced wounds that never healed. But armed with vaccines and antibiotics, modern-day humans can now avoid or be treated for these and lots of other communicable diseases — illnesses caused by infectious agents which will be transmitted between people or from animals to people.

Nowadays, most of the people don’t die from communicable diseases but rather people who can’t be passed on to people . About 41 million people worldwide die annually from disorder , cancer, respiratory illness , diabetes or another chronic illness; noncommunicable diseases account for quite 70% of all deaths globally, consistent with the planet Health Organization.

By definition, noncommunicable diseases are thought to arise from a mixture of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors instead of being transmitted by bacteria, fungi or viruses. In recent years, however, scientists have realized that the gathering of microbes crawling in and on the physical body — referred to as the microbiome — features a large influence on our health. Could it’s that noncommunicable diseases can actually pass between people via the mighty microbiome?

Some scientists think the solution is yes.

An interesting hypothesis

Communities of microbes make their abode within the physical body , and research suggests that these bugs help direct the function of varied physiological systems, including metabolism, digestion and immune defense. Scientists don’t yet fully understand what distinguishes a healthy microbiome from an unhealthy one, but certain diseases do seem to be linked to a bacterial imbalance within the body.

For instance, people with diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and disorder tend to host a special collection of bacteria in their guts than those without the diseases, consistent with a report published Jan. 16 within the journal Science. The paper suggests that healthy people could potentially “catch” aspects of those ailments through exposure to those mixed-up microbes.

“It may be a radical thought to think that might actually be communicable, and [this hypothesis] gives us an entire new way of brooding about these diseases,” author B. Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told Live Science in an email. Several recent studies led Finlay and his colleagues to formulate this hypothesis, but a 2019 study conducted in Fiji really “tipped the scales,” he said.

In that study, researchers collected saliva and stool samples from about 290 people living in close proximity to work out the kinds of bacteria that appeared in their mouths and guts. The results, published in March 2019 within the journal Nature Microbiology, revealed distinct patterns of bacterial transmission within each community, particularly among people living within the same household. While mothers and their children shared many microbes, the microbiomes of spouses appeared to share the foremost similarities. The team could even predict which study participants were paired up as a few supported their microbiomes alone.

The Fiji study suggests that a minimum of some elements of the microbiome are often passed between people. But could the transmitted bugs actually drive disease? Quite possibly.

Spouses of individuals with type 2 diabetes, for instance , stand a better chance of developing the disease themselves within a year of their partner’s diagnosis, Finlay noted. In an animal model of the disease, germ-free mice developed diabetic symptoms after receiving a bacteria-laden fecal transplant from a diseased mouse. Similar trends are uncovered in inflammatory bowel disease, both in human spouses and animal models.

Even disorder could also be linked to the presence of particular bacteria within the gut, Finlay noted. Certain microbes produce an enzyme that breaks meat down into a compound called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). People with high concentrations of TMAO in their blood have a high chance of developing disorder , and their risk rises if these enzyme-producing bacteria appear in their gut.

Studies show that the bacteria can induce disorder if transferred from a person’s into a mouse, but it’s unknown whether an equivalent might occur between people.

Testing the thought Additional studies hint that more noncommunicable diseases could also be influenced by bacteria which those bacteria may travel between people. “Our lab has shown that early-life microbes impact hugely on asthma … and that we have some very exciting preliminary data with Parkinson’s,” Finlay said. Microbes also alter immune function, which can prove relevant to cancer patients whose immune systems fail to acknowledge and attack tumors within the body, he added.

Obesity, a serious risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, also involves potentially transmittable microbes. Lean mice become obese once they receive a fecal transplant from already-obese mice, while humans with obese friends or siblings stand a better chance of being obese than those that do not have obese friends or siblings. Living during a country with a high obesity rate also raises an individual’s risk of being obese.

But all of those studies raise an identical question:How can scientists tell which aspects of a disease could be linked to troublesome microbes, as against diet, exercise, genes or environmental factors?

This is a tough question to answer, Finlay said. “Ideally, one does a fecal transfer from a sick person into a healthy one and causes disease, but in fact this cannot be done [for ethical reasons],” he said. to check his hypothesis, Finlay and his colleagues will need to believe animal models and population studies like the one conducted in Fiji. If any noncommunicable diseases are often transmitted through microbes, the bugs will meet three criteria: they’re going to appear distinct in diseased people versus healthy people; they’re going to be ready to be isolated from a disease host; and that they will induce disease when transferred into healthy animals.

“As we identify mechanisms further, we will actually test these mechanisms, inhibit them … and really show microbes are involved,” Finlay said.

Once scientists clarify how and whether noncommunicable diseases hop between people, they will develop treatments to “correct” diseased microbiomes. Some companies have already begun developing so-called second generation probiotics for inflammatory bowel disease, concocted from a mix of microbes designed to rebalance the gut microbiome, Finlay said. Dietary changes, pharmaceuticals and, in extreme cases, fecal transplants could also function potential treatment options. Fecal transplants involve placing poop from a healthy donor into the colon of another person so as to revitalize their collection of gut bacteria.

“‘Repopulating’ people with lab-grown mixtures of microbes is perhaps better [than using fecal transplants], as we all know exactly what’s getting into and do not need to worry about some virus that we’ve not discovered yet being transplanted,” Finlay said. Fecal transfers are going to be licensed just for fixing “serious diseases,” because the procedure would need to be repeated numerous times, he added.

Scientists still have tons to find out about how our in-house bacteria shape our health. A slew of fungi and viruses also sleep in the physical body and should offer a further route for “noncommunicable” diseases to pass from person to person. If Finlay’s hypothesis garners support over time, it could lead on to a completely new understanding of noncommunicable disease.

“It has significant public health policy implications,” Finlay said, “and further suggests that taking care of your own microbes won’t only benefit you but also people on the brink of you.”

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